Thursday, 4 August 2016

Alexa, explain me how Skill works

(Continue from the 1st Post)
Amazon's voice assistant is called Alexa and it can run on Amazon Echo, Tap, Dot, FireTV and Fire Stick.
Amazon allows users to improve Alexa capabilities with the installation of 3rd party "Skills".
Some Skills are simple enough to be developed, even with very basic programming background.

Amazon is doing a very good job to teach developers how to build skills: code on github, webinar, tutorial, podcast, documentation and swaaaag!

Thinking about what people can ask

The developer of a Skill need to:
- write a list of possible questions a user can ask to Alexa for the skill
- develop a list of operations that answers for each possible questions to Alexa

Each operation can be connected to multiple questions, instead, for each question there is only one operation that can answer.

The operations are called Intents, meanwhile the questions are  called utterances.

Amazon take care of all the rest: recognize questions and parameters in user's questions and connect it to the right operation. The operation is executed and the response is sent back to the user.

Responses can be:
- voice responses
- voice and text/image: the contents is available on a mobile app for android / ios

The role of the mobile app is to give the user a way to install,delete and search for skills, give some informations on how to use a specific skill.
The way Alexa works, sometimes remeber the assistant of the movie "Her".

The mobile app helps the user to find the correct questions for the skill, but a very well done skill is the one in which for a specific intent the developer generated a very exhaustive list of possible questions.

Code on Amazon Lambda

Even if you can create and host your skill somewhere on internet with specific constraints and guide lines in any language you want, the easy way to code a skill, it is to use Amazon Lambda.

Most of the code example on github released by amazon are lambda-ready and built with javascript/nodejs, so with very few changes your new skill/bot is online.
If you are new with bots, I highly encourage to start with lambda so you can put all your efforts on the voice experience.

In the next post I will talk about testing and deployment of the EuroCup skill.
The code is available on my github here.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Attack of the Bots

Bots are a new tech trend in 2016.
Amazon,Facebook,Google,Microsoft,Apple all important companies announced bots support/integration in their products.

Of the all solutions/platforms the most interesting one for me, initially, was Amazon Alexa: because it is an expandable voice assistant.
(Hey Jeff Bezos! I'm still waiting the possibility to buy an Echo in Europe!).
I decided to build one bot, that works for 2 platform: facebook and amazon.

This and the posts that follows are a description of thoughts and choices I made to build it.

I didn't understand why the bots took so much attention on those tech companies until I started to figuring out some advantages over a traditional APP:

User advantages:
1 - Integration in known software: most of the solutions proposed are integrated in app or service known.. facebook messenger, skype, siri. Users already know them: No learning curve, they can rapidly start to talk with a bot with no need to learn and remember actions on user interface.
2 - Natural Interaction: everyone knows how to text messages and talk. This make bots attractive also for old people: it is not important if they can recognize if they are talking with a fake or real person, the important thing is if they can have the answers they are looking for.
3 - No installation/space needed on the device: no need to install anything on their device. No need to upgrade.
4 - Same uniform experience across devices

Developer adavantages:
5 - Userbase Potential: deploying something that become part of a known app (like facebook messenger) improves the link between the real user and the owner of the bot. In the case of facebook each Facebook Page(the page of a shop for example) can have its own bot that replies to a client. It is not just an anonymous user who watch a website, but a user with its information... Very valuable information if well used.
6 - One language for many platforms: web, web-mobile, desktop, mobile . No need to bother with accounts,login, oauth, tecnologies problems and so on!

Of course, Bots can't replace apps that make deep use of hardware on our device games , multimedia applications, photo application, complicated interaction apps and many other categories.
The challenge is also with web page ... but don't forget the interaction model.

Project Euro 2016
At the end of May, I decided to build a bot that gives to users, information about the European Football Cup 2016, informations like
- matches
- results
- teams
- groups

The bot were available for Amazon Alexa (it was published) and Facebook Messenger (it was not published).
The other important feature of the bot was to have a common data layer that were available for the 2 specific platform.

In the next posts I will explain the Amazon Alexa solution.